I do not know how long I slept. I dreamed for ages. I had fallen asleep for no one called on me. No one had truly called on any of us for centuries, millennia. We weakened, became thin as dust, mere vapor, and then we slept. It was quiet, there in the silence between existence and nothing. The world changed and changed again, its face shifting and sinking and rising until when I awoke, Gaia was almost unknown to me. The woods were still green and the sky arched overhead in searing blue, these things did not change, but the songs of the forest were different. They had changed them. They had no right to do so. It was not within the scope of what mortals should have dared.
I was not happy when I awoke. It does not do to anger us.
The Capitol was strange, grotesque, filled with people who spoke names whose meanings they did not know, names of ancient kings and queens, those who had changed names from where they began. It smelled wrong. Chemicals were everywhere, reeking from the humans, seeping into the ground, shifted to their own perverted desires. No rose should smell that way, and though I never called her friend, I remembered one who would have flown into a rage at the use of her symbol in such an unnatural and rancid form.
I left there and went to where the trees grew tall still, deep into forest. The doe and the buck were still there, unchanged, and they gave my heart some measure of ease. But strange birds fluttered through the trees, birds that bore the mark of the unnatural workings of the mortals. Some had even forgotten how to sing. I took a long while to teach them notes again, to try to undo a small bit of the damage, to return them to what they should have been. I protected them when others sought their death. One has a responsibility to one’s creations, and if these were orphans, so much more did they come under my protection.
I was surprised one day to find that another had awoken and stood beside me. She had always been quiet, not prone to the tempers that usually mark us. Today, she wept.
“You have slept long,” I said.
“Too long,” she said.
“Perhaps I have as well,” I replied, looking at the changed woodlands. Even here, in the heart of the forest, things did not feel right, but at least it looked more like home than any other spot I had seen.
“What has awakened us?” I asked her, for though she was quiet, her knowledge, when she would give it, was often sounder than that of those far more loquacious than she.
“We are needed,” she said simply. “The earth calls out in agony at the pains it goes through, unnatural birth, and the children who are your especial care are sacrificed in rites that would have made my brother fling bolts from the sky in rage. The hearth calls out that homes are shattered, lives gone, food taken. And so we are here.”
I nodded. Her words were, as always, true.
“What shall we do?” I asked.
“We shall stop it, of course,” she said. “They need us, though they do not know it to be true.”
“How?” I asked. Thinking deeply on problems had never been my strongest aptitude.
“When we see them,” she said, “we will know.”
I stayed quiet and listened. For long months, changes of the season, years, we remained there, not moving, waiting as only we can. The animals knew us, and the young were protected. I did not hunt. I had not the heart.
Finally, on a day when dawn crossed the sky with the cold mist of spring as its mantle, I heard a footfall that was mortal. We both wheeled around, invisible, silent, watching. What I saw gave me cause to smile and rage at once. It was a girl, still very young, only a child, but she knew the forest. In her hands was my weapon, clutched tightly, a quiver of arrows on her back. She moved with fear but also with the grace of the predator. She was pitifully thin, and I scented death about her, and this caused my anger.
“One of your acolytes?” Hestia whispered quietly in the leaves of the trees.
“She would have been,” I said through birdsong, “and I believe she will be.”
A squirrel scrabbled along a branch not far off, and the girl, obviously sharp-eared, heard it and nervously fitted an arrow to her string. She took a deep breath, held it, and paused. She knew enough to wait until between heartbeats to let the arrow fly. It found its mark, and the squirrel dropped to the ground. It would not have done so without my guidance, but she did not know this. She smiled, pleased at her kill, for her family would eat tonight. Huntress and child, virgin and archer. She was mine.
As she lifted the squirrel from the leaves, I knew I would become her patroness. Silently, I followed, watching as she hid the bow (it would have rotted long ago, but I protected the symbol that was mine), slid beneath the fence (the hum of electricity was mute, and I ensured it would stay so for her), and carried her prize home. There, I found she fed a girl even younger than she, tiny, delicate, almost a fawn. Not only huntress and virgin but protector of children. The girl’s name even bore some resemblance to my own. Yes. She was definitely mine.
Her skill with the bow grew, and if anyone had known enough to realize the truth, they would have known her ability was beyond what it should have been. She had my blessing, and phantom-wise I followed her through the wood along with the boy who was her sometimes companion. A wildcat befriended her, and she seemed to find this amusing. She had no idea that it would have killed her had I not tamed it to her hand. Game was plentiful. The child, though still small, was stronger than most in her poor town. Never once did patrols find her. Not a single line was tripped to alert the Peace Keepers to her presence. These were all miracles, but she knew it not. I liked her. She reminded me of many who had once kept company with me. Perhaps this world was not so different.
Hestia, as she was wont to do, drifted towards the homes nearby. She found a baker, a hearth that still used flame, and though the woman of the house was a shrew, one of the sons caught her eye. He was quiet, strong, and compassionate. He baked bread in the oven, not realizing he served at her altar, and she found her own likeness within him. As I had made my choice, so she had made hers. She increased his skills, his ability to copy and mimic with paint and pen the things around him. While her talents lay more with the keeping of a happy home, she gave him the peace to find the heart of the things around him and recreate them on paper.
When she realized her devotee had his heart set on mine, we were both amused. The Fates, apparently, had never slept at all.
On the morning of the Reaping, and how Demeter would have hated that name, especially as the mother of a kidnapped child, the little girl’s name was drawn, and I gave my girl the slightest push, still allowing her to make the choice for herself. It was her own decision, and I was proud of her for it. She would not die. I would see to it. When the boy’s name was drawn and Hestia stood beside me on the platform in back of our protégés, we knew the time had come. The world would change.
Neither of them knew how often things just happened to fall into place for them: fireballs that did not hit their target, sponsors who suddenly felt moved to generosity when long-buried childhood memories stirred, a game maker who broke rules that he had never questioned before, even, shockingly, a mentor who suddenly found that Dionysius had loosened his hold upon him enough so that madness was put to the side long enough to aid them. I thought I recognized his mark on Haymitch, and I think he may have been there, though he was always a fickle ally.
They won, or thought they had, for we knew it was but the beginning of the battle. Hestia stood to the side, watching intently as they returned home to new hearths, blessing them both, offering some protection. Her boy still plied the flames of the oven, creating bread, creating a sanctuary. She was pleased with him. Mine returned to the forest, for that was always her home, and her bow shot true.
They suffered in the years to come, but not death. They both would have died a hundred times over if not for a series of highly fortunate coincidences and freak bits of luck: surviving torture that should have unhinged him completely, avoiding Coin’s desire to see her dead. When the child died, she collapsed upon herself, for even I cannot bear the wanton destruction of young of any species. But she grew strong, and she found her way home.
The world changed due to the virgin huntress with her bow and the boy who knew the ways of the hearth. They came together, as we had always intended them to do since the day long ago when we knew they were destined. The threads of their fates interwove, and new children born of them came under my protection. The earth was small again, almost flat, dotted with but few people, and the wild took over most of the land. It began to smell right once more. Hestia and I watched over them, blessed them as we had eons ago. The world was never perfect, not since the box was opened and the troubles of mankind had flown far and wide, but hope was always hidden at the bottom of it all. Hope had returned again.